Ed Stafford: the mindset of an explorer
Ed Stafford has embarked on many punishing expeditions. But why does he put himself through such mental and physical pain?
Words by Patrick Tillard
There is one question I’ve always wanted to ask Ed Stafford: “What is wrong with you?” Not to be a contentious hack hoping to get a rise, but to genuinely try and comprehend what it is that separates him from you, me and most of the world’s population. Because who in their right mind chooses to walk the length of the Amazon River? Who would opt to be marooned on an uninhabited tropical island in the Pacific without food, water or clothes? It’s not normal.
I recently got the chance to put this question to him.
“I think a bit of my brain is missing,” Stafford replies, jovially. “In all seriousness, there is a medical condition that I was told I had called ‘developmental immaturity’. It’s not flattering, but it acknowledges that we all have different elements to ourselves and the bit in me that hadn’t developed properly was the adult, responsible self. It explained why I used to get into trouble a lot, and why I was happy to take huge risks.”
To call his 2008 Walking the Amazon expedition a “huge risk” is perhaps an understatement. No-one had ever attempted this before (it is highly unlikely that anyone will attempt it again), and he went in knowing that there was a good chance he may not come out. It was a trip fraught with dangers: deadly wildlife; known drug ganglands; punishing temperatures; and an insane 6000 miles to cover in some of the world’s most inhospitable environments. The journey would take him 860 days – nearly two and a half years.
“It was succeed or die,” he says. “We were told we would die many times but we kept walking. It was a strong, violent demonstration of endurance; a two-fingered salute to anyone who doubted me. It broke me, re-built me, and was the catalyst for immense personal evolution.
“Of course, there were low moments. Many pages of my diary were streaked as tears had literally been dripping onto the page as I wrote in my hammock. At times in Peru I would just ask myself one question: ‘Are you going forward?’ If the answer was yes, then nothing else mattered. I was doing what was required.”
While the physical demands of all his expeditions are substantial, the mental preparation is arguably of greater importance.
“I struggled hugely and had wars going on in my head”
“I think I was massively underprepared for the Amazon in terms of mental robustness,” Stafford says. “I struggled hugely and had wars going on in my head. In hindsight, I still had a long way to go to make peace with myself and who I was. Nowadays I have nothing to hide from. I can deal with whatever life throws at me.”
Developmental immaturity aside, there is a bewildering rationale behind many of the feats Stafford has undertaken. If you watch him on the Discovery Channel, there is a genuine authenticity to his exploits – no hidden safety harness, no secret stash of Mars Bars, no immediate help. It’s real survival, genuine exploration, and therefore inherently dangerous.
“I’m proud and stubborn,” he says, musing on what fuels his adventures. “I never want to admit defeat and I hate eating humble pie. Although it does happen. It used to impact me more when my sense of self was based upon what people thought of me; when I looked to others to get a sense of my own success. Now I am the one who says how well I am doing. And it’s far less about proving myself to others.”
Stafford acknowledges that there is an element of narcissism to being an explorer.
“If someone had walked the Amazon before me, I wouldn’t have even attempted it,” he says, frankly. “I had to be the first and that is pure ego. But out of self-centredness came something more wholesome. It humbled me, it exposed me to cultures that taught me how to live better and more honestly. It held up a mirror and made me realise that there were more important things in life than my own achievements.”
In 2016 he married Laura Bingham – a distinguished adventurer in her own right – and together they have a son, aptly named Ranulph. I question whether this has altered the risk he’ll accept, now that he has people to leave behind if things go south.
“It does to some extent,” he answers. “When you become a dad you realise that you are important in different ways and that your role has shifted. It involves consideration and responsibility for others. Ignore that natural hormonal shift and you shirk the amazing opportunity to be a great dad – the sacrifices and the immense joy. I’m ready and happy for the shift to happen.”
But, as we move onto new adventures and thoughts of a next challenge, it is clear that ambitious ideas still circle in his head.
“There is loads out there. People just make excuses as to why they are not doing them. It always seems like people are hindered by the competition but it’s their own minds that hold them back. Life circumstances and finances can get in the way, but you just have to rip those walls down and say that you are going to make it work. Somehow. No-one has ever walked solo across Antarctica unassisted and unsupported. No-one has ever walked the whole length of the River Nile. All these journeys are there for the taking.”
In the more immediate future, “once dad duty is over” (at the time of writing Laura is in Guyana, attempting to become the first person to kayak the Essequibo River), Stafford has the second half of a new series to film, which “is bigger and bolder than anything I’ve done to date”.
Bigger and bolder, he says, nonchalantly. So much so, that as the interview concludes, I’m left still wondering what’s wrong with Ed Stafford. I’ll try again next time.